The magnitude and meaning of the recent revolts and protests in the Middle East cannot be compared with those that exploded in 2005 after the publication of cartoons in the Danish newspaper “Jyllands-Posten.” Seven years ago, disorder was allowed to spread in the Middle East under a policy of “benign neglect”: various Arab presidents were under domestic pressure and refused to intervene. The same policy also applied in anarchist Lebanon. We now have evidence that some governments sought advantage from the clashes: they abstained from deploying security forces to the contain the mobs in order to avoid displeasing radical factions. As a side effect, they also sent George W. Bush a clear message about the fallout of his controversial military interventions. For better or worse, unrest in 2005 occurred within a situation of political order.
The Middle East of today is in a post-revolutionary phase, and the new round of clashes is more dangerous and significant. They cannot be interpreted as a mere reaction to a specific offense – any pretext could have been leveraged as justification to set embassies ablaze. Over the past years, Western media have targeted the Islamic faith repeatedly, but none of these episodes have been met with a similar level of outrage. Just think back to episode 201 of the popular cartoon series “Southpark” – aired in 2010 – that presented Mohammed in a bear outfit to avoid “drawing” him. The same year, American cartoonist Molly Norris had the superfluous idea of setting up an “Everybody draw Mohammed Day.” Last August, a group that associated with the German right-leaning “Pro Deutschland” movement was authorized by a German court to show a Mohammed sketch in front of a mosque. A few fatwas were issued – now considered a medal of honor by anti-Islamists from around the world – but US embassies in the Middle East carried on without major disturbances.
We can explain the latest round of protests as an expression of political dissatisfaction. They demonstrate that radical Islam is not feeling adequately represented by the Islamic “reformist” factions that dominate new governments in the region. In foreign policy, anti-Americanism has surfaced again as a political issue, just like it did during the first epoch of Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s. Within this context, the lack of an American role and strategy in the Middle East becomes apparent. Washington can only try to defend itself against criticism. Indeed, most Western leaders have condemned the violence, among them Angela Merkel and Mario Monti. In contrast, the leaders of the Middle East have kept quiet.
But the protests are more than bad PR for Washington: they also signal a strategic drawback. Washington has lost its pivoting power in the Middle East. At the beginning of his first term, Barack Obama had tried to open a dialogue with Iran and Russia in order to contain the destabilizing effect of Moscow’s influence on the Shiite crescent that spans from Teheran to southern Lebanon, and with the hope of vitalizing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Obama’s plan was soon swallowed up by the outbreak of the Arab Spring. In Israel, many believe that the relationship with the United States has touched its lowest point since 1948 – the year when the State of Israel was founded. Case in point: Obama could not even find a five-minute window in his schedule to meet with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his upcoming visit to the US in late September.
Obama had managed to tame Libya’s leader Qaddafi and convince him to cooperate with the West, yet rebel forces had another plan. In Egypt, Muslim brother Mohamad Morsi ousted the military from government posts, and thus removed one of America’s most beloved allies.
Today, American leverage in the Middle East is severely limited. Politicians in Washington cannot intervene too directly in Syria in order not to displease Russia. They are not willing to be tough on Iran, despite the ticking bomb timer. They observe China becoming the largest purchaser of oil in many countries, and have no power to counter the Chinese power gain in the region. Most of Obama’s moves during his first term have been defensive: he decided to withdraw American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan (both decisions were necessities, not choices), but troops remain after massive strategic miscalculations. We might extend thanks for the wars to Mr. Bush, but the consequences now fall on Mr. Obama as well.
The main risk now is that the US administration may be tempted by a sort of “new Jeffersonianism,” and decide to pursue a strictly isolationist approach to foreign policy. Take the question of energy independence: the idea to substitute oil with gas (the US have a lot of domestic shale gas reserves) and reduce American commitments in the Middle East is nonsense. If Americans don’t buy Arab oil, somebody else will – possibly a buyer from Asia?
Reproaching Israel is a must. Some believe that Washington just waits for Israel to attack in order to have the Israeli military doing the dirty job of halting Iran, and in order to protect the United States from the political costs of the bombing. Yet Israel is the regional force with the most influence over the regional security balance. Even Egypt had to request assistance from the Israeli Mossad to contain the situation in Sinai after a recent terrorist attack left sixteen Egyptian soldiers dead. And when Egypt decided to close the main smuggling tunnels linking the Sinai with Gaza, the Egyptians requested maps from Israel. Finally, Egypt’s president Morsi fired his intelligence chief after he admitted disregarding a Mossad message that hinted at an imminent attack – the one that led to the sixteen dead soldiers.
With each new episode of unrest, the risks for the United States in the Middle East are increasing, and Obama seems to have opted for a waiting strategy to keep the pieces together until after the US elections on November 6th. Announcing big decisions now would not serve any purpose: elections are never won on foreign policy, but they can be lost on it. Obama wants to avoid becoming a one-term president: he remembers Gerald Ford, who fell out of popular favor over his handling of the Vietnam conflict, or Jimmy Carter (who stumbled on the Iranian question) or George Bush (who seemed too interested in Iraq to take care of the American economy). Obama hopes that the Middle East won’t turn out to be his Vietnam.
Read more in this column Stefano Casertano: Let Syria Split